Holding Back the Ego: Gretchen Parlato and Gerald Clayton Trio at Atlas
GRETCHEN PARLATO and GERALD CLAYTON TRIO
At the Atlas Performing Arts Center on Dec. 2, 2011.
I’ve written before about a sort of new consciousness in jazz, where fresh musical risks and an awareness of “free” playing outflank a reverence to older forms and heavily-promoted assumptions about how jazz “should” sound. As has been typical over the course of jazz history, this new wave of has been led primarily by instrumentalists – Brad Mehldau, Jason Moran, and Vijay Iyer come to mind, or bands like Kneebody. Throughout jazz history, a smaller number of singers have accompanied innovations in the music - one thinks of Abbey Lincoln with Max Roach in the 1960s, or Norma Winstone with the Azimuth trio on ECM – but these seem fairly minor examples compared to the large-scale movements led by the Parkers and Coltranes. Due to the improvisational nature of the music, it seems the majority of innovations in jazz have come from players, rather than singers.
The terrific young singer Gretchen Parlato, who appeared as part of the Library of Congress series at Atlas Performing Arts Center Friday night, accompanied by a blistering trio, presents a fascinating modern-day counter to my theory. Singing in a light, breathy alto, understated with a lowercase “u,” Parlato is the antithesis of the big-throated jazz singer (Ella Fitzgerald or Sarah Vaughan are probably the most famous practitioners of this style), and her stage presence is refreshingly un-presentational. At all times, Parlato’s concern seems to be her own immersion into the flow of the music, rather than the comfort of the audience, and this stands a challenge to common paradigms of jazz singer as “entertainer” or musical focal point. Parlato’s voice becomes a textural addition to the group sound, just one more instrument, more concerned with blending in than with dominating or even leading. Her presence thus challenges the borderline egotism of a jazz singer “headlining” (and too often usurping in attention) musicians who typically could run technical circles around them. The sum effect of Parlato’s approach is transfixing both to the artist – I don’t believe she opened her eyes while singing once in the entire evening – and to audiences. The packed house at Atlas seemed to wholeheartedly embrace the newness of this sound.
Although Parlato won’t usurp Stephen Sondheim for lyrical profundity (“look to your heart and you will find the truth” sounds bland amidst the excitement of the surrounding sounds), her treatment of Wayne Shorter’s “Juju” was extraordinary. The firebrand jazz saxophonist and composer for Miles Davis’s classic 1960s quartet has been a mentor to this young singer, and it shows. Amidst the band’s chewy groove, Parlato’s wordless improvisations almost physically urged the music forward, and in its high, sensual register, her voice sounded almost like Wayne’s saxophone on those classic Miles records. Parlato doesn’t “scat” in the traditional mode; rather, her vocalizations seem to hover in a separate, higher register above her bandmates.
In its weightless, amorphous groove, Herbie Hancock’s classic composition “Butterfly” (which incidentally, is taken from Hancocks’s “Thrust,” the funkiest album ever recorded, IMHO) seems perfectly suited for Parlato’s style, and her inclusion of hand clapping and hand percussion indicates Parlato’s lovely Brazilian tendencies. (I’d bet my record collection that seminal 60’s bossa nova chanteuse Astrud Gilberto is an influence on Parlato’s subtle, sensual phrasing.)
“Holding Back The Years,” a lost 80s gem from Brit-rockers Simply Red, pointed almost to an indie sensibility, though it’s doubtful whether most indie rockers have anything approaching the technical chops of Parlato’s bandmates. I’d never heard the still-young, once-child prodigy pianist Taylor Eigsti play live before and he’s an absolute monster, having seemingly achieved that state where anything is possible on his instrument, where musical interaction and the creation of new ideas becomes a wildly fun act of ecstasy-making. Plus, it was fun to watch Eigsti’s left hand comping on his shiny red Moog-ish keyboard while his right hand soloed on the piano below. Alan Hampton switched from upright bass to acoustic guitar and sang with Parlato on his charming original “Still,” destined for inclusion on some chirpy mix CD. (Does anyone still make those besides me? And is this song really in 11/8?!) “Alô, Alô” had everyone knocking things – castanets, the lid of the piano, the wooden body of the bass, and the audience moved with Parlato as she ably sang Portuguese.
Opening the evening was the trio of Gerald Clayton, at 27 already a Grammy-nominee and veteran of the New York scene. Clayton plays the entirety of the piano, and his thorny, angular style makes demands on the listener, even as his trio references the classic piano trios (specifically Red Garland) of the post-bop era. For this listener, however, I wanted less deliberate calibration in the flow of the music – each tune seemed to predictably proceed from tentative meandering to hard groove, and I wondered what chances the musicians were really taking? If there’s a difference between “controlled messiness” and messiness being legitimately messy, I actually wanted more of the latter, in that sort of urgent, vital, changes-the-chemistry-of-your-being way that the music of giants like Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, or Keith Jarrett have the power to achieve. This is perhaps a mild criticism, however, in the larger perspective, which is that Clayton’s trio, fueled by explosive drummer Kendrick Scott (who played incredibly on both halves of the program) is a powerhouse of musical potential and one of today’s best young jazz groups. I particularly dug Clayton’s pretty, yearning composition “Sunny Day Go,” a musical reminiscence of Los Angeles written during a New York City snowstorm. The easy rapport of the musicians with the crowd – Clayton gave a shoutout to DC as “such a soulful town” – was palpable.
The evening wrapped up with a rousing, all-hands-on-deck version of SWV’s early 1990s power ballad “Weak,” a defining cover on Parlato’s stunningly good debut record, featuring her trademark behind-the-beat phrasing and transformative powers. (As Parlato physicalized the lyric “it knocked me right off of my feet,” you believed her.) In this freewheeling approach, where one had the feeling the band could’ve stayed all night to jam, the most successful, unrestrained musical freedom of the evening was conjured. Watching Eigsti and Clayton good-naturedly battle on piano and synth was ridiculously fun, as was watching the two young geniuses bro-hug it out afterwards.
Quick word about the terrific venue, which in its few years of existence has become one of the gems of the DC live music scene. It's an enormously flexible space, with crystal clear sound, an intimate audience feel and the ability to house many different musical formats. (The following day after this concert I played a rehearsal with an 80-piece orchestra on the same stage!) Kudos to the Library of Congress, sponsors of this series at Atlas. LOC has some quite adventurous musical programming coming up in 2012 – check out what’s in store here.
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